For what at first looked like a scandal of the day, Bud Light’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney grew into one of the biggest advertising stories of the year, catching a venerable brand in a cultural crossfire—where it stayed for months.
5 ways the Bud Light fiasco changed beer marketing
The episode erupted in April after Mulvaney participated in a campy Bud Light promotion on Instagram marking her first full year of womanhood. The video drew violent condemnation from conservatives who boycotted Bud Light. Progressives also soon grew disappointed with the brand as it distanced itself from Mulvaney and LGBTQ+ communities as Bud Light came under fire. Bud Light, which was America’s best-selling beer when the controversy arose, subsequently spiraled into a severe sales slump which it has been unable to dig itself out of.
Following are five upshots of the controversy.
5. Shelf allocations are changing
Though brands are sending differing signals as to the magnitude, they agree the controversy has cost Bud Light facings in retailer resets—a key merchandising advantage the best-selling brand had long enjoyed. Constellation Brands, U.S. parent of the Modelo, Corona and Pacifico brands, gained 8% to 10% more shelf space in stores that reset shelves this fall, company execs said. Modelo would be the rightful inheritor of Bud Light real estate, having surpassed Bud Light as the country’s top-selling beer in June.
Molson Coors, parent of the Coors Light and Miller Lite brands, gained 6% to 7% more shelf space, Gavin Hattersley, president and CEO, said in a November earnings call: “For brands of this size, that is a massive amount of space.”
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Execs at Anheuser-Busch InBev, Bud Light’s parent company, downplayed the effects on the brand, acknowledging that Bud Light lost about 0.8 case facings out of 20, or less than 5% in stores that made changes in the fall. AB InBev’s Michelob Ultra and Busch Light brands gained some space in the same resets, they added.
A bigger test will come next spring, a time when retailers typically do more thorough resets.
4. Sticking to beer
AB InBev execs have made it clear Bud Light isn’t courting controversy anymore—but just what counts as controversial is a matter of some debate. Michel Doukeris, AB InBev’s CEO, said the company has engaged with more than 260,000 customers since April and gotten a clear message from them: They don’t want provocation; they only want beer. They want Bud Light to concentrate on crowd-pleasing platforms such as the NFL, college football and country music; and Bud Light marketing to focus on beer, such as the “Easy to Summer” and “Easy to Sunday” campaigns introduced by the brand this year.
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Mulvaney had a different take. The transgender influencer in June posted a video that condemned Bud Light for failing to come to her defense, while saying the company needn’t have interpreted the incident as divisive in the first place.
“Supporting trans people shouldn’t be political,” she said. “There should be nothing controversial or divisive about working with us.”
3. A bad year for beer
The Bud Light story was by far the most severe story during a tough year for beer. While there were significant share shifts among beer brands, overall beer volume was dwindling: Domestic shipments dropped 7.4% in September, marking the seventh straight month of declines, according to Beer Institute figures reported by Beer Business Daily. Culprits ranged from customers rejecting price increases to increased legal cannabis use, along with an explosion of alternatives ranging from alcohol-free drinks to canned spirits.
Survey work undertaken by Bump Williams Consulting indicated that many former Bud Light drinkers were leaving the beer category entirely, switching to spirits or spirits-based ready-to-drink beverages.
Despite the double whammy of a soft industry and mass boycott, Bud Light kept up its marketing this year, tripling its summer ad spend and spending heavily on NFL and college football. AB InBev in June shined an appreciative light on its beleaguered employees and distributors in a spot called “That’s Who We Are.”
2. Brand leaders pay the price
Bud Light had been in a sales decline—albeit a slow-moving one—for more than a dozen years, and brand execs were hopeful this would be the year the decay stabilized. A new brand platform, “Easy to drink. Easy to enjoy,” debuted in January with a brand voice that was “more confident, more magnetic [and] more aspirational” than before, according to Benoit Garbe, then AB InBev’s U.S. chief marketing officer.
The new positioning did away with Bud Light’s long reliance on humor, and was a big step from the bikini ads of the brand’s distant past. That was no mistake: Alissa Heinerscheid, then the youthful marketing VP for Bud Light, said the brand needed to reach new audiences, including women and younger legal-age drinkers, to reverse its decline.
Heinerscheid, whose remarks to that effect in a March podcast fueled vicious backlash, took a leave of absence in April, along with Daniel Blake, group VP of marketing for AB InBev’s mainstream brands. The company at the same time said it was reducing marketing layers so that its senior leaders “are more closely connected to every aspect of our brand’s activities.” AB InBev has not commented on the status of Heinerscheid or Blake.
And in November Garbe said he would depart the company at year-end, with Kyle Norrington, U.S. chief commercial officer, taking over Garbe’s duties.
1. Backlash comes to roost
While corporations loosened their historical reticence to embrace social issues in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, a chilling backlash against so-called “woke capitalism” came to roost in 2023, and not only for Bud Light.
Look back: Bud Light isn't the only polarizing brand
Competitor Miller Lite caught flak for a March spot that decried sexist beer advertising. Citing employee safety concerns after disruption in some stores, retailer Target pulled some of its Pride-related merchandise, only to come under fire from LGBTQ+-rights supporters. Conservatives howled when Skittles released Pride-themed packaging. And the Los Angeles Dodgers made a mess of their Pride Night celebration, first disinviting, then re-inviting, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag group whose use of religious imagery drew protest from Catholic groups.
“I think companies that have supported inclusion and diversity will continue to do that. The thing that might change, though, is how they do it,” Tim Calkins, associate chair of the marketing department and clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, told Ad Age. “And I think that balance companies are going to try to find is supporting these causes and doing it in a way that doesn’t create a huge backlash.”